Low-code environments for citizen developers and integrators explained

The term 'low code' is being mentioned in various IT markets more frequently. In recent years, nearly all IT vendors have made great strides to simplify the use and deployment of their offerings. The fruits of these efforts are most obvious in improved user interface (UI) design. Simplicity has replaced complexity. Screen layouts and navigation have become more intuitive and rapidly accelerate the time required for users to become proficient. IT vendors in the application development and integration markets proudly tout their new low-code environments. They seek new customers, those less technical and more business-oriented, calling them 'citizen developers' or 'citizen integrators' – indeed, a noble cause by vendors and worthy of recognition. But the quality of low-code systems varies, and vendors are far from turning typical employees into effective application developers or integration specialists. In this report, we examine the structure and capabilities of low-code environments, call attention to a few popular vendors driving the trend, and offer perspective as to where low code will lead.

The 451 Take

It turns out that while low-code platforms do indeed minimize, and in some cases actually eliminate, the hand coding of software, it does not mean that any user can step up and start developing applications or crafting integrations. Some technical skills are still required. This will become apparent during the evaluation of the low-code environments. The UI must be evaluated for simplicity and intuitive design. More importantly, the completeness of any template designs must be vetted to determine whether they offer the correct models for the applications or integrations to be designed. Also, drag-and-drop tools should be tested to determine their relevance to the use cases for which they are needed and how they can capture and build things such as workflows, conditions, rules and routing, among other functions. Less technical 'citizens' may find that somewhere during their hands-on evaluations they got lost, or that the design failed to execute because some rule was overlooked or violated. Having a friendly coder on call will be handy during evaluations and to flatten any potential post-procurement learning curve.

What is a low code?

As the phrase implies, a low-code environment abstracts away from the developer (not completely, but to a large extent) the need to use one or more programming languages to write software. 451 Research defines a low-code environment as any IT system or tool (e.g., platform, middleware, service) that uses visual models, prepackaged templates and graphical design techniques with drag-and-drop tooling to build software or integrate software and IT infrastructure. Low-code architectures can include both development and run-time capabilities, thus enabling rapid application development and continuous deployment. They are often equipped with libraries within which are sample models and templates, connectors, plug-ins, code samples, APIs and other component/objects to accelerate development and integration. They typically offer means to craft or insert code (e.g., Java, JavaScript, HTML, etc.) as an option to customize logic and UI designs. In essence, they enable software to be 'configured' rather than 'coded.'

Low-code environments are not exclusively used for software development. Those that are well designed also enable full lifecycle management functionality that supports the design, build, deployment and management stages of a software lifecycle, and may include capabilities for social collaboration, project management, performance monitoring and end-user feedback.

We generally believe that in the current market, there are two types of low-code environments: low-code platforms enable rapid business application development; low-code middleware enables rapid integration to establish data and process flows between sources and targets, applications and hybrid IT infrastructure (e.g., a combination of distributed on-premises and cloud services). Low-code platforms can include business process management (BPM) suites, enterprise content management (ECM) software, mobile application development tools (e.g., mobile application platforms), PaaS (aka applications PaaS or 'aPaaS'), and workflow-orchestration tools. Even various SaaS offerings that are highly configurable can be deemed low-code platforms. Low-code middleware typically includes integration PaaS (iPaaS) and mobile back end as a service (MBaaS).

Why is low code important?

Imagine being able to develop a software application or integrate various data sources into an analytical tool as easily as creating a simple PowerPoint presentation. This is the purpose of low-code environments – to accelerate and lower the cost of innovation by placing powerful tools in the hands of subject-matter experts and knowledge workers otherwise untrained in software development.

Such professionals are often referred to as citizen developers or citizen integrators – people directly responsible for execution and business results. By arming them with low-code technology, enterprises can bypass IT organization bottlenecks to accelerate the pace and quality of innovation. Citizens can test hunches, fail early (or better yet, succeed early), refine and continuously improve. Low-code environments can help accelerate how an enterprise does things, and when this becomes recognized by prospects and customers as superior to rivals, enterprises achieve competitive advantage. The overall benefit to low-code environments is speed. In general, they can potentially shave 50-90% off development time vs. a coding language.

To be clear, these citizens are a new type of developer; they are not coding specialists per se but, rather, more business-oriented staffers that team with IT coding professionals to design, develop and deploy applications and integrations. Those familiar with agile development practices and DevOps initiatives would testify to the value of blending business and IT professionals into a cross-functional team for solution development. Indeed, the role of citizen developers and integrators and their relationship with IT coding experts represents a similar but less formal organizational construct.

What follows are a few representative vendors in each low-code class – low-code platforms for application development, and low-code middleware for data, application and hybrid IT infrastructure integration.

Vendors offering low-code platforms for application development

  • Alfresco positions itself as leading the convergence of ECM and BPM with a uniform platform to develop and run content-driven business process applications. Its Activiti BPM engine offers a low-code step editor for rapid creation of business process applications.

  • Appian positions its BPM, Case Management and Mobile Application Development offerings as a low-code means for citizen developers to create departmental and enterprise business applications. Its offerings are deployable via Appian's aPaaS. Appian prefers to be recognized in the market as a PaaS vendor rather than as a BPM vendor.

  • BMC's Innovation Suite enables developers and business users to create digital service management applications in clouds, using a portfolio of design tools, REST APIs and a library of reusable components.

  • K2 Appit for SharePoint is a low-code cloud service designed to build SharePoint and Office 365 business process applications. It includes forms development and data integration. K2's blackpearl offering is an on-premises BPM suite.

  • Mendix's low-code aPaaS offering is built on Cloud Foundry. It makes use of agile project management to manage scope and progress. The vendor claims that its visual application development capability can improve development productivity by a factor of six. Its features include one-click deployment, controlled release management, runtime optimized for web-scale, and an app store with a library of building blocks to speed development.

  • Microsoft Flow is a cloud service that enables line-of-business users to build workflows using self-explanatory templates that automate business tasks and processes across applications and other cloud services. Microsoft PowerApps enables non-technical users to create mobile apps.

  • Nintex positions in the workflow and BPM markets as a provider of content-driven workflow automation. Its flagship offering, the Nintex Workflow Platform, enables users to craft workflows on and across Microsoft SharePoint and Office 365 ecosystems. Its recently launched Workflow Cloud, a low-code platform that can build automated 'workflow as a service' capabilities across IT platforms. It can be likened to a self-service SaaS design and runtime environment. Nintex also recently launched Hawkeye, an analytic offering that exposes performance details beyond workflow execution metrics to reveal how business results and outcomes are determined.

  • Oracle announced Project Visual Code in September 2016, and it will become the Oracle Visual Developer Platform in March. At the core of the platform is Oracle Visual Builder Cloud Service, a low-code development platform for both extending SaaS applications and creating custom applications. It can create both web-based and on-device mobile applications. Complementing the Builder is the Oracle Visual Component Catalog, which contains pre-built components to be assembled visually into applications using the Builder.

  • OpenText's Release 16 offers low-code features and is composed of two product components: OpenText Suite 16 and OpenText Cloud 16. They are licensed in four technology suites: Content Suite (ECM), Process Suite (BPM), Experience Suite (customer experience management) and Analytics Suite. Each suite is a package of integrated products with business analytics that can be deployed on-premises, as a subscription in the OpenText cloud or as a managed service.

  • Progress Rollbase is a web-based platform for creating, customizing and distributing applications. Rollbase applications run in an integrated online environment and share a common security model, data model and user interface. It's offered as a PaaS. Its framework includes wizards, and dialogs provide drag-and-drop and point-and-click tooling.

  • Salesforce has excelled in making its flagship CRM SaaS highly configurable to truly appeal to citizen developers. The vendor is making progress to build low-code features capabilities into all its offerings (e.g., Salesforce App Cloud, Heroku). A notable one is its Journey Builder, which enables marketers to understand, define and create coherent, unified customer experiences across web, social, email, apps, advertising, sales and service.

  • Simplicité is an aPaaS designed to create enterprise applications and SaaS services. It uses an application lifecycle DevOps approach to design, construct, test, run and operate applications. Applications can be hosted on-premises or published to several cloud infrastructure providers (either public/private IaaS or PaaS).

Vendors offering low-code middleware for integrations

  • Azuqua's iPaaS offering targets individual developers and includes both a design tool and an administration tool. Azuqua Designer is a drag-and-drop design canvas used to create the workflows and integration processes within and between applications. Azuqua calls them FLOs. Its My FLO tool performs administrative tasks and reports on usage, expanding into the workflow-orchestration market.

  • Cloud Elements is a hybrid vendor of sorts. Its multi-SaaS-to-ground iPaaS platform is built to include some API management qualities, some data management capabilities (mapping, translation), and some workflow enablement. The vendor pitches the combined feature set as a means to build composite applications (or at least composite integrations) across similar/related SaaS and on-premises applications, such as sales and marketing.

  • Dell Boomi positions itself as a complement to the in-place integration and enterprise service bus investments of its customers and claims to be able to modernize legacy integration technology with its portfolio. Its iPaaS platform is built to address seven use cases: classic on-premises-to-SaaS integration, cloud integration with MDM, workload migration to clouds, mobile applications integration, API management, EDI and OEM partner use cases.

  • Informatica Cloud iPaaS and its Intelligent Data Platform enable rapid access and integration of data from top-tier ecosystems (e.g., Salesforce, Microsoft, AWS, Tableau, Workday, NetSuite), and support use cases in each that include cloud operational data integration, cloud application integration, cloud data management and a simplified means to integrate data for cloud analytics.

  • SnapLogic's Elastic Integration Platform (an iPaaS) enables applications, processes and data integration in a single cloud service. Integrations are enabled by simply 'snapping' together its preconfigured integration components called 'Snaps.'

  • Zapier is a web automation application. Users can build 'Zaps' that can automate business workflows. A Zap is a blueprint for a task or integration process. It uses 'Triggers' and 'Actions' to execute.

Conclusion

We don't believe that low code is a market but, rather, a design paradigm for software development, middleware tools and cloud services. It's a messaging strategy for IT vendors to make their wares more attractive to prospects. All IT tooling gradually migrates toward intuitive design and simplified use. The low-code moniker will be around for the next several years but will likely diminish in relevance and use over time – especially as consumption-based 'as a service' offerings of all types (e.g., IaaS, PaaS, SaaS and future 'aaS' offerings) proliferate. As they do, they potentially diminish the need for citizens and, indeed, resident coders to design and develop on their own.

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